Ryan Streeter Making Poverty History: A Short History

Former chief economist of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development David Henderson coined the appellation, “Global Salvationism,” to describe the kind of behavior one witnesses at gatherings such as this past week’s World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland. WEF was created in 1971 so that elites from around the world could gather to “map out solutions to global challenges,” according to WEF’s website. This year’s forum is entitled, “Improve the State of the World: Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild.” WEF’s program summary explains the urgency of the task facing those gathered in beautiful eastern Switzerland this way: “Improving the state of the world requires catalyzing global cooperation to address pressing challenges and future risks.” In an effort to compound jargon with alliteration, WEF uses “rethinking” in the titles of 29 conference sessions, “redesign” 16 times, and “rebuild” 9 times, for a total of nearly one-quarter of all the sessions. With all the turmoil created by the global recession and other “pressing challenges” in 2009, the world’s elites came together this week ready to re-do about everything.

Central to WEF’s annual objectives is what to do about life’s inequities and imbalances. Hardly anything warrants “catalyzing global cooperation” more than the ongoing effort to make poverty history, reduce inequality, and correct global imbalances. WEF has announced that global development is taking center stage on the third day of the event.

How ironic, then, that just prior to their gathering, Maxim Pinkovskiy and Xavier Sala-i-Martin updated findings from their 2009 National Bureau of Economic Research paper, “Parametric Estimations of the World Distribution of Income,” on the economics website VOX. Their findings show precipitous drops in global poverty since 1970—just about the same time WEF began meeting in Davos (Mark Perry wrote about the original paper here).

Between 1970 and 2006, the global poverty rate fell nearly 75 percent. During this period, the percentage of the world’s population living on less than a dollar a day fell from 26.8 to 5.4 percent. The world’s population grew 80 percent during the same period, which makes the poverty reduction all the more astounding. The global Gini coefficient, a standard measure of inequality, fell from 67.6 to 61.2 percent, indicating a drop in inequality as well as poverty. The same trend is found in other measures of inequality besides Gini.

And when one computes a measure of global “welfare” understood in the old-fashioned sense of well-being, we find that life has gotten better faster for a larger share of the world’s population than perhaps any time in history. By deriving a calculation of well-being from GDP and inequality measures, the authors show that between 1970 and 2006, global welfare more than doubled, growing faster than GDP.

The authors also consider the World Bank’s new purchasing power parity (PPP)–adjusted measures of GDP and find that while global poverty increases overall, the rate of poverty actually drops faster since 1970 than it does under more conventional GDP measures. In other words, under the PPP model, the world looks a lot poorer in 1970 than it does using more traditional measures of poverty, but today, the poverty rate is nearly the same regardless of whether one uses the PPP or more traditional measures (see the graph below). Using the World Bank’s adjustment actually has the effect of making it look like we have been doing a better job of reducing poverty over the past three decades, despite how the world looks poorer in any given year.


(Chart available at http://www.voxeu.org/index.php?q=node/4508.)

Now, just days before Pinkovskiy and Sala-i-Martin published their VOX article, Princeton’s Angus Deaton shot to pieces the idea that one can accurately measure global poverty and inequality across countries in his presidential address to the American Economic Association. Deaton’s argument is persuasive and serves as a good reminder that economic measures across different societies are nearly impossible to establish with perfection and complete accuracy. That said, it is interesting that Pinkovskiy and Sala-i-Martin find the same drops in poverty across the various methodologies they test. Something is going on here.

One might draw the conclusion that the precipitous drop in poverty corresponds with the beginning of the WEF meetings in 1971. Maybe the elite gathering has worked! Or, one might conclude liberalization of states and economies is working. During roughly the same period covered by the authors, the percentage of free countries in the world increased from 29 to 46 percent, according to Freedom House’s annual ratings. Liberalization and economic growth go together. One might also conclude that China’s explosive growth, which has carried Asia as a whole from 19 percent to 28 percent of the global economy during this period, has had a significant impact on poverty reduction, not to mention India’s rapid rise in its share of global GDP.

Instead of rethinking, redesigning, and rebuilding the world, WEF’s best minds might consider devoting a full day to understanding what worked the past forty years and figuring out how to “repeat” it.

This post originally appeared at The Enterprise Blog at The American.

Ryan Streeter is a senior fellow at the London-based Legatum Institute and can be followed on Twitter here.

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